We often view a vacation in Mexico as a short stay in paradise, a worry-free, fun-filled vacation but we often overlook the fact that while we may be in a tourist hot spot and feel relatively safe, we are still in a lower-income country where corruption and money grabbing are at the forefront.
Make one bad move in Mexico and your vacation could take an ugly, or even deadly, turn. Recently, it's hit the news that three Canadians have been killed in Mexico in the past month alone. Politics and security are not stable in Mexico, and the law isn't clean.
A local man from Carlyle was unfortunate enough to experience the vastly different ways of the Mexican 'justice' system during a recent trip to Playa Del Carmen. A simple fender bender landed Neil Brown in a filthy Mexican prison for more than 30 hours.
Neil Brown and his children, Nicole, Brooklyn and Zach, as well as Zach's girlfriend, Kayla Breti, arrived in Play Del Carmen, Mexico on Dec. 18, 2011. The first eight days of their vacation went as planned, until a small traffic accident escalated to a frightening stay in prison, and a troublesome time for the Browns.
On Dec. 26, Neil and Zach headed downtown to watch the World Juniors at 2:30 p.m. After the game, while heading back to the condo, Neil realized the gaslight of the vehicle they had rented had been on for some time and he should find a gas station to fill up at.
"We were heading north on 10th Ave. and the condo's only another five minutes away, I said 'We'll go west here and head out by the highway because that's where all the gas stations are,' and as I was turning left their was a motorcycle coming from the north, but there was these little palm trees about four or five feet high, a blind spot, and we didn't really know where we were going for sure, we were in a residential area at that time, so I turned the corner and right when I seen him he seen me and I stopped but he didn't quite get around me and he just clipped the front of the car and tumbled over. . . and there was the accident," explained Neil.
As they were in a residential area, the first thing Neil decided to do was get an English translator because the language barrier would be an issue. His son, Zach, phoned the concierge from their condo. While their concierge, Claudia, didn't come to the scene, a local Mexican, Jesus, who was able to speak English and had seen the commotion, came over and spoke to Neil and Zach, and explained the police would be coming. "He was a good guy," remarked Neil.
Documentation would be required once the police arrived, but Neil had left his licence, the car rental agreement, and his passport in the safe back at the condo. Jesus, for 200 pesos or about 15 Canadian dollars, drove Zach back to their condo so he could pick up all their documentation.
Soon the police arrived. "I didn't have any translators then, once Jesus and Zach had left. And basically they didn't handcuff me but they just put me in the police car, and they had a truck come and haul the car away, which was drivable but in Mexico nothing gets driven from a scene because there's an investigation. Anyway the ambulance came and picked up the guy, and he was fine he just had a flesh wound on his knee, and the ambulance took him to the hospital."
Then the police took Neil to the station where Claudia, the concierge, met up with him. While at the station Neil was checked over by a doctor
The accident happened at 4:30 p.m., and by 10 p.m. that night the situation still hadn't been sorted out. Problems with the insurance for the rented vehicle would delay Neil's release. "The insurance company was fraudulent," commented Neil, "we bought the extra insurance at the car rental company, Continental Car Company," which is an amalgamated company and also runs under the name, America Car Rental. The insurance company claimed to be the wrong one, saying they weren't associated with the Continental Car Company or America Car Rental - the company that the Browns had rented the vehicle from.
"What they were saying was that the insurance company contacted for this car company was not the right insurance company. So that was their first claim, that they don't represent this company," explained Zach, "but they were the right company because they were dealing with the case the entire time, and that same night they went to the hospital to say that they would reimburse the hospital later on if they released the victim."
Zach went over to the hospital to pay for the victim's medical bills so he could be released, "in order for him to get released the hospital bill has to be paid," commented Zach. "The insurance company tried to go over there and say they would reimburse them the next day because at the time they couldn't pay cash, but the hospital would not accept the reimbursement they only accepted cash, so I had to go over and pay cash for him to get out, which was about 350 dollars. So he would get released and come down to the police station and sign the pardon so they can go on with whatever else had to be done," continued Zach.
"See, once he signed off his pardon, then that was the first step. Okay, he's covered, now we have to deal with the car insurance company. Insurance was supposed to do all this because we bought the extra collision and liability insurance when we rented the car," explained Neil.
At about 11:30 p.m. that night, Neil was transported from the Transit police station, or highway patrol office, to the Mexican prison. The police had told Claudia that Neil would be kept in a private holding room, not a jail, and he would have to remain there for the night until they could get things sorted with insurance the next morning because offices were closed for the night. The police led Neil to an air-conditioned holding room, or rather a room that was used for visitation in the prison, which was padlocked from the outside. Neil thought he would remain here for the night, until a guard came and opened the door and motioned Neil over. As he had been in the dark about what was going on, Neil figured that everything had been worked out and he would be free to go, however the guard led him down a dark hall into a cell with six other Mexicans.
"That was a scary moment, because you didn't know what you were going to get into. Were you going to get beat, or raped? You didn't know what was going to happen.
There were six other Mexicans in there, and most of them were sleeping because it was getting later in the night. I guess they were used to this, they could sleep on cement and have vomit and feces all over the floor and it doesn't bother them, that was pretty gross, so as far as me sleeping in there . . . even standing was bad enough. So anyway, one of the Mexican's came up to me, he could see the fear in my face. He could speak English, so he told me 'Amigo don't worry, I can see the fear in your face, don't worry these guys aren't that type, I'll protect you.' And he was a good guy. And then you're supposed to try and relax in there for the night - well that was the longest night of my life. Every minute was like a day. It wasn't physically demanding or draining, it was mentally. Not knowing how long this going on, or what's going on on the outside.
I pretty much knew that there wasn't anything going to go on until the next day, I had that in my head, this is where I am for the night."
The cell which Neil would spend the night and day in was about 14 feet by 14 feet, with three cement walls, and 27 bars creating a barrier at the front. "There was a toilet bowl in the corner with no tank on it, no seat, no water hooked to, obviously it was piped into the sewer system somewhere. Then there was a pail sitting there with a hose and a tap, and those Mexicans were using that toilet in the wide open. And they can't put their toilet paper in their either they just threw it along the side, or not their toilet paper, but the cardboard they ripped off the cardboard boxes left in there. And that's what they would lie on, the Mexicans; they would lay the cardboard down. Over time blankets had been put down, so the Mexicans used them, but they were filthy, just gross, and they would wrap up in that. But the Mexicans way of life and the Canadians way of life are two different things," recounted Neil of the horrific cell.
Zach stayed at the police station with Claudia until about 3 a.m., trying to work things out, but nothing was going to get done that night. "There was nothing we could do but go home and get as much sleep as you could and come back in the morning," commented Zach.
When Zach arrived back at the condo, Zach and Brooklyn continued to try to figure out the situation. "Dad has always told us if you get in trouble in another country, phone the Canadian Consulate, so right away I told Zach to go online. He started to look up that number and he phoned and got hold of the Canadian Consulate," remarked Neil's daughter, Brooklyn.
"They were asking a bunch of questions about where we were, and to explain the situation and what happened and just getting details from me, so I gave them all that. Then they said that 'being that it's Dec. 26 we'll try and get somebody the next day from the Canadian Consulate but there are no guarantees because they're supposed to be on holidays,' " continued Zach.
While there is a Canadian office in Mexico, office hours apply, so Zach phoned the 24-hour emergency line based in Ottawa. What the Ottawa office did was contact the Canadian consulate representative in Playa Del Carmen who was on call, and he showed up at the jail the next morning.
"The jail I was in was not long term, it wouldn't be a full year or two year or five year place," explained Neil, "it was a place for the Mexicans anytime they got in any minor troubles, it was what they call a 48 hours place. It was a minimum of 48 hours, then the Federales or the Policia would set bail and if they can't come up with the bail money and don't have friends or family to come bail them out, then they get transferred into what the Mexicans called 'the big house,' which is the main prison."
"They were telling Claudia the night before it was all going to be fine and he [Neil] would get out that day, well it was all a lie," commented Brooklyn. "The next day when Zach and I went down to the jail, we met that Canadian Consulate guy, he had on a roughrider shirt which is kind of cool, I was like 'Zach, there's someone from Saskatchewan!' Then he stuck out his hand and he was like, 'are you the Browns?' We talked to him for a bit. He explained the process and what was going to happen, tried to make us understand it better, because in Mexico you're guilty until proven innocent, and in Canada you're innocent until proven guilty so it's completely opposite," continued Brooklyn
At that time the Canadian consulate representative informed Zach and Brooklyn they would need to get a lawyer and supplied them with a list of English-speaking lawyers in the area.
"We called about five, and a lot of them didn't answer because of Christmas holidays. No one was answering, and I could tell the Canadian consulate guy was getting a little bit worried," remarked Brooklyn.
Luckily, a lawyer called the representative back. The representative told the lawyer, Angel Prieto Palmeros, the situation, and Palmeros, who had his car all packed to go on vacation, drove from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen to help the Browns. Two lawyers came, a man, Palmeros, and a woman. Palmeros told Brooklyn and Zach they would need cash.
"The lawyer wanted 1500 dollars upfront, he said that's the normal process down there. He realized that as young people we didn't have that," explained Zach, who ended up paying the Palmeros 700 dollars upfront instead, and would later pay the full 1500 after the ordeal was over.
Brooklyn continued to explain the process of trying to get enough cash money in Mexico, "there's limits on your debit cards down there, which is 440 dollars a day, and the lawyer told us to get three grand out. It's a good thing we knew dad's pins because we couldn't talk to him, we couldn't have any contact with him, and he didn't know what we were doing. So we used Zach's debit card, and dad's debit card, so we got out all the money we could, we bounced around from bank to bank, ATM to ATM, and half the time it wouldn't work, sometimes it would work. We had about a thousand dollars in the safe too, because we took cash down. We went and got that, and we got about fifteen hundred dollars out of the ATM."
While Zach and Brooklyn had the money they would need in their accounts, as well as their dad's accounts, it was accessing it that was the problem. The jail wouldn't allow for money to be wired in either, it was cash-only. Claudia, who only had 500 dollars in her savings, which is a lot for a Mexican, offered that to Brooklyn and Zach, if they needed it. Palmeros also offered to use the 700 dollars he had been given upfront from the Browns as well if it was needed.
While Brooke and Zach were out trying to gather as much cash as they could, Palmeros was back at the prison working to get Neil out. After exhausting their best efforts to get cash, Zach and Brooklyn went back to the jail where they remained until 4 p.m., at which time Palmeros told them there wasn't much they would be able to do and they should go eat as they hadn't ate since the early morning. Claudia took Zach and Brooklyn to the mall where they picked up some food, then at around six p.m. they headed back to the jail.
"I was starting to get worried by then too, because we started at eight in the morning, and it's been how many hours," remarked Brooklyn.
"That was my fear," intervened Neil, "coming late into the evening, by nine o'clock, here we are, offices are closing again, and the paperwork's not done"
"And that was another problem," mentioned Zach, "seven o'clock came, and the forensic guy who sets bail was supposed to be there, but he wasn't going to come because he has 48 hours."
"It was another money-grab," said Brooklyn, "we had to pay him to come that night or he wasn't going to come until 11 the next morning. 2000 pesos, or 200 Canadian dollars, we had to pay for this forensic guy to come and finish up the process and set the bail. He showed up at nine p.m., and he was working, working, until about 11 p.m. Then said to our lawyer, 'what's going on, what's taking so long?' And he said, 'don't worry, if I didn't think your dad was getting out tonight I would have went home four hours ago, got sleep, and started again tomorrow.'
Palmeros, who knew how the jail worked, gave the head guard 200 pesos, under the table so that if Neil needed anything, the guard would help him out or come get the lawyer. Later on, Neil was having a panic attack so the guard brought him out of the cell into an air-conditioned room. Palmeros then gave the guard another 500 pesos to allow Brooklyn to stay with Neil, as normally someone in the prison would only be allowed one five minute visit per day. The guard even allowed for Neil to briefly spend some time outside.
The money exchanges were very discreet, with Palmeros and the guard having a conversation, followed by a handshake in which cash was slipped from the lawyer to the guard. It was all under the table.
It was about 10:30 p.m. that night when Brooklyn was able to go back and finally see her dad. "When I looked at my dad, he looked physically ill. His face was white, he looked like a zombie."By that time, Neil would have gone without sleep for about forty-some hours, combined with the stress of being in such a squalid place with no idea of what's going on and what's going to happen, or how much longer he would have to stay in that filthy, inhumane cell.
After going outside with her dad, Brooklyn asked the guard if she could go see the cell. "I was like can I go look at the cells, and he was like 'no, you don't want to,' and I said 'no, seriously I want to go see,' so he took me back there," recounted Brooklyn, "there were only two guys left in there when I went to see, and just vomit and human waste everywhere. It was disgusting; there wasn't even toilet paper. It's inhumane; there are no words to describe how disgusting it is. You shouldn't be able to keep anyone in there."
"Especially tourists," interjected Neil. "I mean, it would have been different if you're in a crime where you murdered someone or it was a major drug deal or something like that, but for something as minor as what this was, where no one was seriously injured. To put tourists in those kind of places . . ."
Brooklyn spent about an hour and half with her dad, and at about midnight she heard the head guard calling for Neil. "He said, 'Neil', and we walked over, and he said 'you're free', and he smiled.
While they ended up not having to pay a bail price, they did have to pay the victim 500 dollars. "The lawyer didn't know how much the bail was going to be so that's why he told us to get three grand to be safe, so we did, and he said he seen a bail price on the paperwork but we didn't pay anything," commented Brooklyn.
Neil signed a bunch of paperwork, and that was it. The Browns paid Palmeros the rest of the lawyer fee, and their horrendous incident finally came to a close.
"What I would say to the public, to tourists and people travelling, is do not rent vehicles in Mexico."
"We're hearing on fifth avenue down there is tourists will be walking down there, and it will get congested in an area and all of a sudden some Mexican will put a joint in your pocket, and it's all a set up. You'll walk a few more feet, and the police will be there and it's all set up and they'll apprehend them and they're off to jail," continued Neil.
"I should tell a little story about the U.S. guy, an 18-year-old U.S. kid had rented sea-doo's, which we've done in Mexico before, and he had some kind of accident with the Sea-doo and they threw him in jail."
"And he was just there with his friends," continued Zach, "and he got in the sea-doo accident, and one of the other inmates said his buddies didn't know where he was or where he got taken and his family wasn't there, nobody knew where he was, and apparently he was a mess."
'He was gone when I got out of there, so he probably spent his 48 hours in there and they likely let the guy go, but I don't know, maybe he was moved to the big house," finished Neil.
"When you're in any foreign country, you want to know where you're going. You don't want to get caught off guard," commented Zach.
"There's so much corruption in the police and the insurance companies. Very, very fraudulent government and police," remarked Neil.
Many people never expect anything bad to happen while on vacation in Mexico, but you can't forget that it is a lower-income country with corruption and dirty operations, and the rules that apply in Canada simply do not apply in Mexico. While the Browns made it through the tribulation with courage and composure, not everyone may be so lucky. Precautions need to be made when travelling to any foreign country, and tourists should be aware of the laws, the dangers, and the differences they face.